30 October 2014

Questions about Spiritual Direction

[[Dear Sister, you do spiritual direction, don't you? When someone speaks of spiritual accompaniment does this mean the relationship is mutual? What I am asking is if I seek a director to accompany me, does she expect me to accompany her on her spiritual journey? If a person advertises through the parish that they offer spiritual direction as a form of "spiritual friendship" does this mean the relationship is one of peers or is it one of superior to inferior? That's not stated very well I guess but I think you understand what I mean. I would like to be friends with my director. I would like us to accompany one another. I would like to meet for lunch somewhere and talk about spiritual matters like equals. Why shouldn't I want this? Two other questions. My experiences in the spiritual life are kind of unusual. How do I find a director who has also had such experiences? Also, if a director charges for her accompaniment what do I do if I think that is inappropriate?]]

Yes, I do spiritual direction and the word accompaniment is one I use a lot to describe something of the relationship. What it means is that the director accompanies the directee in aspects of her spiritual journey with God. A person comes seeking direction of someone experienced in and a regular practitioner of prayer so that she (the director) may assist the directee in discerning and responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit in her life. The SD relationship is ordinarily a long-term one, is not oriented to problem-solving --- though it will also do this from time to time --- and does not work according to the transference/counter-transference dynamic which drives therapy or counselling relationships. In fact, it eschews letting such a dynamic drive the relationship or the growth which occurs there. For this reason among others it is a relationship which is often misunderstood in a culture so familiar with therapeutic relationships and the dynamics which dominate there.

On Friendships and Soul Friends:

While a Spiritual director may indeed develop a friendship with a directee, especially over a period of years, the term "friend" as in "soul friend" or Anam cara, for instance, does not refer to friendship in the ordinary sense. The director is a friend whose focus is the relationship between the directee and God, a friend whose focus is the directee's heart where this relationship is centered and which is the truest core of the directee. She serves to guide the person's journey into this realm of the heart, that sacred place where God bears witness to Godself, and stands in silence and prayer, watching and listening as the journey takes place. Ordinarily, therefore, the director tries to convey a reverence for the person's self and intimate journey; this implies she maintain some conscious distance, especially in the early stages of the relationship. Friendship in the common sense is not the aim of spiritual direction and it can actually throw off the focus of the work (namely, the much more central  and personally constitutive relationship which exists between the directee and God) if it becomes the aim or even an aim of the relationship.

Personally, I have dealt with a number of persons who expect (or hope) to become close friends, and especially in the beginning of the relationship, wonder why I am not sharing my own story, my own prayer experiences, my own concerns, etc. At this point they really have no sense how profound the sharing of SD actually is, nor how deeply they will be asked to go into their own hearts so that the focus can truly be their relationship with God. This initial expectation or hope is pretty normal, especially in someone who has not participated in a formal SD relationship before. In time they usually come to understand that my refusal to change the dynamics of meetings in this specific way serves to facilitate their own focus on this relationship, and more exclusively on their own growth in prayer and human wholeness and holiness. When the person refuses or is unable to accept that the SD relationship is not one of friendship in the common sense it usually means we will not be able to continue working together. (Whether or not a more usual form of friendship subsequently develops via another avenue is another question.) Similarly, when a person who has come for spiritual direction expects to accompany the director and persists in this expectation, the relationship is destined for failure. People come to a SD for many reasons, some thinking it's a good place to discuss books and ideas or to talk "about God" in a general sense, some in search of a friend and others in place of a needed therapist; none of these, however, is what spiritual direction is really about and a good director will not allow the relationship to be redrawn in these ways.

The Intimacy of Direction:

There is a profound intimacy involved in spiritual direction, and a degree and form of love which is very special, but it may well preclude friendship in the ordinary sense except in certain circumstances. For instance, I have a couple of directees I have worked with for a number of years. They no longer live near here and we meet by skype these days except at regular points when they come to the Bay Area so we can meet face to face. This usually means that we will go to lunch first and talk about what's happening in our lives in a general way. Then we return to the hermitage and meet for spiritual direction per se. Yet, the period of meeting for direction is, by definition, not a period of equal sharing. I am there to listen in a specifically discerning way to both the directee and the Holy Spirit at work in the situation (and in myself), to suggest ways of moving forward, or to offer some resources for prayer based on what I hear. Sometimes I will share part of my own story if I think it can be helpful, but only if it seems it will be illustrative, etc.

Regarding mutual accompaniment: when two people are both mature in the spiritual life and have worked for some time with directors on their own, as well as done some direction themselves, mutual accompaniment can be something which is helpful and wonderfully enriching. The skills required are those one learns in accompanying and being accompanied over a period of years. Otherwise, however, the directee must remember (as I would remind you to remember) that the director is already working with a SD and often (at least occasionally) a supervisor as well. She already has someone accompanying her as Anam cara and is not looking for a directee to come in and take his/her place! If you, for instance, are looking for friends with whom you can discuss spirituality or theology, then there are other ways of seeking such persons out. It is more than a little presumptuous to contact a spiritual director for SD while expecting her to entrust her heart to you in the very same way --- even if you are an experienced and skilled director yourself. Neither, then will a director expect or encourage a directee to function as an accompanist to herself.

While I understand your difficulty with terms here (it is indeed hard to characterize the inequality along with the equality of the relationship without thinking in terms of superior and inferior polarities); but I think we must find ways to do this. The direction relationship is one between persons relating to one another in two different roles. The director and directee are equals in Christ and the director serves Christ and the directee with her time, her commitment, her prayer and her expertise. At the same time, she necessarily sets her own story, desires, and needs aside (including the desire or need for friendship in the usual sense if it exists) for the benefit of the directee and her relationship with Christ. Everything that occurs in SD must serve Christ and his desire to love and be loved by the directee and it must do so in a focused  and self-deferential way.

While some directees may want the relationship to be more like two violins playing the Bach double together, the work of direction makes the relationship more like that of a solo violin accompanied in her attempt to play Bach's A minor concerto with passion and integrity. In this situation the accompanist serves both the soloist and composer and/or the composition by stepping back. Her work requires a strong sense of what Bach wrote and what the soloist desires the music to be to reveal that fully. As accompanist she also needs technical virtuosity (and a psychological capacity) of a different kind than required in solo work; she may be a soloist in her own right, but in this situation she is there to facilitate the expression of a kind of union between artist and composer and/or composition. Her role is indispensable but unless she is able to work skillfully as an accompanist rather than someone playing a principal part of a duet, the entire theological dramaturgy will be damaged and the revelation that was meant to occur will be prevented or at least significantly impeded. Most directees come to understand such limitations on the director's part are part and parcel of a significant form of reverence and love.

On Unusual Experiences and Spiritual Direction:

The idea that a director needs to have had the very same experiences you have had, especially when these are unusual, in order to direct you is a common misconception. It is true that the director must be experienced in prayer, she must pray regularly, be under spiritual direction herself, and be open to meeting with a supervisor should something in her work with directees trouble her or trigger something in her. She should be experienced in a wide variety of forms of prayer including contemplative prayer, lectio divina, Divine Office, knowledgeable re Scripture, etc. She should be skilled in human psychology, knowledgeable regarding mystical prayer, and be able to gauge or discern whether something is of God or not, as well as skilled in finding ways to help facilitate the movement of the Holy Spirit in those situations which are, for the most part, not of God. She will also work to help and encourage the directee to draw wisdom from extraordinary experiences which are of God. In  every case she must be patient and grounded in the sense that God as Love-in Act is profoundly and, to some extent, inalienably present within the directee; she must be aware that this presence takes time to grow and reveal itself ---  just as a tiny mustard seed 1) is present despite its near invisibility (or similarity to other seeds) and 2) takes time to grow.

She must trust in the God who is profoundly present in the ordinary events of daily life, and be able to hear and respond to that presence; only then will she be able to assist a directee to do the same. Above all, she must be a person of hope who trusts in the grace of God whose power/love is made perfect in human weakness. She does NOT need to have had visions or other extraordinary experiences, nor does she need to have experienced serious or chronic illness (for instance) to listen with both compassion and empathy to the way these condition a person's spiritual life, but she does need to understand both the potential and the drawbacks of these realities in a spiritual life. While she should be open to the surprising ways God manifests Godself, she will be sensitive to the fruits of God's presence and activity and she will discern the nature of a directee's experiences on the basis of the fruit associated with them. Always she will seek to enhance the good fruit of prayer and find ways to allow the inauthentic to drop away or be rendered less compelling. Ordinarily the latter will happen as the former is facilitated.

On Payment for Direction:

If you have a problem with a director being paid on a fee-for-service basis I would suggest you speak to her and see why it is she accepts fees. You and others need to understand that SD in the Western Church, especially, is a ministry which requires training, education, supervision and regular work with a director; this means that even when it is carried on by religious it is often the primary way the individual helps support her extended religious family with many retired Sisters. Some religious communities will subsidize Sisters who do SD but this is less prevalent today than it once was. It is wonderful when a person can accept clients and work with them gratis --- I suspect most directors would love to be in this position --- but it is simply not possible for many spiritual directors today. Even so, most work on a sliding scale and accept at least some clients who cannot pay. Some of us even accept some form of barter, for instance. So long as the fees are reasonable, the scales can be worked out between director and directee and revised when the need arises, and the directee is assured of the director's care, competence, and experience, then the Scripture that should be kept in mind is probably, "The laborer is worthy of (her) hire."